Baghdad battles to preserve its heritage

A man walks past the historic Jabbar Al Khodr house in Baghdad. Iraq's heritage has been badly affecting by mismanagement, corruption and attacks. (AFP)

Fawziya Al Maliki, an elegant and determined 44-year old, is spearheading Iraq's efforts to preserve what architectural treasures remain in the war-ravaged country, but her job is proving dangerous.

With many Iraqis fiercely opposed to letting cultural concerns undermine their financial interests, Maliki received death threats in early this month for prohibiting the demolition of an old house in central Baghdad to make way for a new apartment block.

"Lots of people took advantage of the chaos after the US invasion in 2003, when laws were not being enforced, to demolish their houses, especially in Kifah, Al Rasheed and Haifa street, as well as in Adhamiyah", the capital's historic centre, said Maliki, Director of Heritage, a state agency set up by the Ministry of Culture.

"When we started to ban these demolitions, the owners sent me death threats, burnt or dynamited their buildings, while claiming they were hit by terrorist attacks and swiftly constructed new ones in their place," said Maliki, at her office in Baghdad's National Museum.

Since 2004, Heritage has identified 1,600 buildings in Baghdad between 50 and 200 years old that include mosques, churches, khans – or merchants' courtyards – public baths, palaces and historic houses, built from the late Ottoman period up to the time of the Iraqi monarchy.

This brings to 8,000 the number of buildings listed in Iraq, excluding archaeological sites, where some of the earliest traces of human civilisation can be found and which are the responsibility of another organisation.

Baghdad's own architectural legacy has been badly affected by mismanagement, corruption, attacks, a poor sewage system and the repeated flooding of the subsoil close to the Tigris river that runs through the city.

Alaa Jassem is in charge of Heritage's Baghdad operations and heads a team of 32, many of whom have been exposed to violence because of their work.

"We are trying to make the owners understand that these are not just old buildings but a part of their country's history, and they must preserve them," Jassem said. "Some understand that but others don't, so sometimes we have to take legal action."

Under a law passed in 2002, "everyone who destroyed, damaged or defaced a building considered part of the country's heritage could receive a 10-year prison sentence, while those convicted of changing the building's original purpose faced up to seven years."

But owners complain that the law has put them in an impossible situation, as no grants are available to preserve properties or fund compulsory purchases.

Fathallah Farid is an accountant who, together with his four cousins, owns the beautifully decorated 1,000-square-metre (10,765 square foot) "Lulu" house, in Sinak, a residential neighbourhood in Baghdad. "My grandfather built the house in 1932 for his wife Lulu Richa Maraki. They left after the great flood of 1954 and rented it out to a spare parts dealer attached to the Italian car firm Fiat, who kept it until 1996," said Farid.

Inside, the ceilings are still intact and the embroidery testifies to the importance Farid's grandfather attached to decor. But the walls and the floor are smeared with oil stains, while the basement is regularly flooded and Farid said that he does not have the 90 million dinars (Dh282,813) it would cost to repair it.

"The decoration is French; the house was not built in the Iraqi style. I don't understand the heritage department's interest in preserving it," he said. "Buy the house and do what you want with it, or else leave me to renovate or demolish it."

He claims the municipality estimated that the house is worth four billion dinars but Heritage does not have the money to buy it.

But despite the dangers and lack of funding, there are isolated signs of progress.

On the banks of the Tigris, workers are putting the finishing touches to the rehabilitation of the luxury 19th century residence of Khalil Pasha, Iraq's last Ottoman governor. (AFP)

 

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